Giving honest feedback

The global gig-economy means increased collaboration with contractors and freelancers. It means many practitioners, regardless of experience, share the responsibility of giving and receiving honest, constructive feedback. A responsibility that becomes increasingly important when it’s creatives critiquing creatives.

Here’s what my research uncovered…

How to give honest feedback.

Before you start, understand that managing creatives is challenging.
It’s a constant balancing act.
Design thrives on the unpredictable but small business owners need to reduce risk and deliver predictable results.
There lies the conundrum.

Giving honest feedback is a two step process.
The first step is to identify what makes good feedback.
The second step is to understand your special powers and weak spots.

Once that’s done, simply plug the gaps.

What makes good feedback

A quick google search delivers very similar advice across the board:

  1. A good brief. Move the critique from the subjective to the objective by starting with comprehensive brief and then using it as basis of all feedback.
  2. Clarity of communication. Creatives typically work best when they have clear direction and understanding of the goals before they start work. Same goes with feedback – don’t move the goal posts. Use specific language and clear directions. Clarity rules.
  3. Balance the positive and negative. I know, up against a deadline I’ve been guilty of thinking about the positives and talking about the negatives. We all like compliments.
  4. Don’t micro-manage. Explain what you think doesn’t work and why but not how to make it work. Independent-thinking creatives generally do not respond well to micro-management. Be specific (vague feedback is unhelpful — we dislike it when clients do it to us so don’t do it to others) and then move away.
  5. Ask questions. Don’t assume. Ask why something was done that way, or why the solution. Perhaps there’s a great idea not immediately evident. Critique shouldn’t be confrontational.
  6. Provide feedback consistently and in a timely manner – important in a long project that can wander off on a tangent or redo can impact or compromise another’s deadlines, which leads to
  7. Own your own stress. Be mindful your stress is yours to own and manage. Never put your stress disguised as feedback onto others. They have their own.

Remember there are rarely truly bad designs, there are inappropriate designs or design solutions that don’t meet the client’s brief.

Understand your management style

How you give feedback is very much based on your personality and management style. Some people find it easier than others. Recognising what you do well, and where you need help, can make the process easier.

Three things to consider:

Be intentional

Feedback on the fly is often badly phrased and misunderstood. Not many people can manage the theatre sport of improvisation well.

If impromptu is your strength, skip to the next point. If not, avoid improvised feedback. Instead, be intentional. Take time to frame your response and plan your meeting. If part of your job description is giving continual feedback to a team or mentoring a junior, introduce clarity around how and when you will be available to give the feedback. For example, plan to meet at the end of the hour and take a few moments to gather your thoughts before the catch-up.

Be positive

Remember critique is a detailed analysis and assessment of something – it is not necessarily negative. Everyone responds to praise and compliments better than criticism. Faced with a negative criticism, many shut down their hearing mechanism while they defensively think through their response rendering the rest of the critique useless.

Identify the positives in the presentation first. It’s on time, or the colour/typography is on brand – there’s got to be some gem even in the worst of presentations. This will literally open the ears of the presenter and create a positive vibe for the rest of the discussion.

Start a culture of constant feedback

When feedback becomes a constant activity it becomes more easily given and accepted. It’s when feedback becomes a ‘thing’ identified as challenging, difficult and best avoided it becomes infrequent and that starts a downward cycle of negativity. Instead, start a culture of a constant feedback cycle at all stages of a project. At 5 minute stand-up WIPs, at pre-lunchtime check-ins or as a wrap of the day at shut-down.

Invite creatives to ask others for feedback as a method of continuous improvement.

Summing it all up…

Praise often – more than you think you should. It builds teamwork and morale. And accept giving feedback can be challenging. It’s too easy to focus on correcting mistakes. Instead balance the negative with some positive feedback.  It doesn’t have to be long-winded, it can be brief, but sincere.

Want to continue the discussion? Email Carol.

Carol Mackay

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About Carol

After 30+ years running a design studio, I accumulated a pretty special network of fellow designers. One thing most have in common: a dislike for the ‘business’ side of design. Most are impatient with any task competing for time spent doing what they love – designing.

Not me. I love that intersection between design and business. I built a career working with Ombudsman schemes, the Emergency Services sector and the Courts. My special power has always been an ability to use design to translate the difficult to understand or the unpalatable message.

I now use exactly the same skills with creative business owners. I translate the indigestible into bite-sized chunks of information. I share insights, introduce tools and embed processes to help others build confidence business decision-making skills. More confidence makes it easier to grasp opportunities. More confidence makes it easier to recognise a good client from the bad.

Outside DBC I have mentored with Womentor, AGDA and most recently with The Aunties.
And I’m a proud board member of Never Not Creative. Ask me about internships 😉

Always happy to chat, I can be contacted here.


For a short while, an archive of my design work at
My current work can be viewed at and

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